Monday, November 4, 2013

Which nutrition labels are most helpful to shoppers?

Grocery shopping for nutritious food can be overwhelming for even the most educated consumer, as illustrated by preliminary studies presented today at APHA’s 141st Annual Meeting and Exposition.

While there is no standardization of front-of-package nutrition labeling, the Institute of Medicine has proposed a graded star rating system. The food industry, however, is already using Facts Up Front, which displays nutritional information on the front of packaging.

Researchers examined consumer reaction to five different labeling systems to determine which helped them accurately identify healthier products, accurately compare nutrients among products, and ultimately purchase a healthier product.

In an online survey, approximately 1,000 participants were shown various food labels and asked to buy items. Two systems performed better than the others: the NuVal Nutritional Scoring System, which rates food from 1–100 based on nutrients, and a multiple traffic light labeling system, with green being healthier than yellow, which is healthier than red.

The NuVal system, which was developed by an independent panel of nutrition and medical experts, shows the information on shelf price tags and is currently being used at participating supermarket chains.

“I think the big message from this is the Institute of Medicine symbol didn’t really shine in any of these outcomes,” said session presenter Christina Roberto, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholar at the Harvard School of Public Health.

In fact, the IoM star rating system seemed to confuse consumers — people saw a star and thought a product was healthy when it wasn’t.

Presenter Dan Graham, a psychology professor at Colorado State University, also found that certain labeling techniques fare better than others. Graham is using eye-tracking cameras to show which areas of packaging people look at.

Preliminary data of 153 parents showed they viewed nutrition labels, which are now on the backs and sides of packages, 279 times, compared with viewing front-of-package labeling 1,442 times. Further analysis showed that people weren’t just accidentally glancing at the labels either.

“It does seem to be an intentional effort to look at [front-of-package labeling], but there appears to be little understanding of how to use them effectively,” Graham said. “A key piece of whatever system is adopted [needs to include] more education of how to use these products and what they mean.”

— M.P.

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